Sunday, November 29, 2015

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Jicama

     Just to get it out of the way, first off, jicamas look unappetizing.  Like you'd imagine an ent's testicle would resemble.  Or, less graphically, a warty, old potato.  Nevertheless, I was excited to see them, as I knew they were grist for my blogging mill, so to speak.
     As the name probably suggests, jicamas are native to Mexico.  Alternate titles for it are yam bean, Mexican potato, and Chinese potato (the last one because the Spanish took jicamas to the Philippines hundreds of years ago, and from there they spread throughout parts of Southeast Asia).  Botanically they're a legume.  The plant itself is almost comically dangerous--every part of it save the root is poisonous, and even the skin of the root is toxic, too.  They tend to be a roundish or oval shape, and about the size of a large orange or a grapefruit.
     They're a fairly versatile food.  Jicamas are often eaten raw, with salt, chili powder, and lemon juice.  Some folks put them in salads.  Other methods are slicing them and frying them into chips, adding them to soups, or stir frying them.
     Given my extreme aversion to cooking, or even doing much food preparation, it should surprise no one that I chose to eat mine raw.  Alas, due to moving around for the holidays and work, I didn't have any chili powder or lemon juice available.  So I tried some pieces plain, some with mustard on them, and some others with a salt coating.  The results were pretty unimpressive.  As I'd read, I found the texture, and flavor, to be similar to a bland apple.  The mustard, and especially the salt definitely helped, but even with these the jicama was mediocre at best.  I would consider having them again, but I think only if it was cooked up in a restaurant dish.
     But, to give them credit, these root vegetables are healthy to eat.  They're low in calories, as well as in fat and sodium.  Plus they have decent amounts of fiber, potassium, and Vitamin C. 
     The source for my jicama was Frieda's of California, although it was grown in Mexico.  Frieda's tagline was ,"Inspire.  Taste.  Love."  Which is much more dramatic and positive than my experience with them was. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Australian Crocodile Cheese

     Okay, I was being a little sneaky with this title.  As everybody probably knows, crocodiles, and other reptiles, do not suckle their young.  And if they did, man, that would be quite a dangerous trick to milk them!  What I did have was cheese made in Australia, from cow's milk, called Old Croc Extra Sharp Cheddar.
     According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cheddar is the most popular kind of cheese in the world, and the most studied cheese.  It takes its name from the English village in Somerset where it originated.  When it was initially developed isn't conclusively known, but there are good historic records of it being around since at least 1170 A.D.  Some researchers think that the Romans brought the recipe in, by way of France.  The caves in the Cheddar Gorge provide excellent cheese-aging storage areas.  Flash forward to the 19th century, when Joseph Harding revolutionized cheddar production.  Through the use of his new time-saving revolving breaker to cut the curds, and other technological innovations, Harding was able to modernize and standardize cheddar cheese.  Which is why he's known as the "Father of Cheddar Cheese."  This cheese type also got a boost during World War II.  Because of rationing, most of the milk produced during this time was earmarked for "Government Cheddar."
     Cheddar is usually an off-white, to yellow, to orangish color.  It's usually designated as a hard cheese.  One of the common flavorings for it is annetto, which provides a sweeter, nutty tinge to it.  The word(s) "sharp" and "extra sharp" are often used to describe it, and these mean the cheese has a more acidic taste.
     The Old Croc cheese I got boasts that it is GMO-free, all natural, and aged for 18 months.  The logo has a crocodile, of course, and the tagline "Careful.  It Bites!"  As it turns out, Old Croc is doing a bang-up job of exporting--this brand is available all across the U.S., for example.
     Anyway, as advertised, the cheese was sharp, with a nicely sourish flavor.  It was good.  Maybe not the best cheddar I've ever had, but certainly far from the worst (and in my cheese-crazy opinion, even the "worst" cheddar, or any type of cheese, for that matter, is still at least decent).  The seven ounce block I got was about $5--a tad expensive, but not ridiculous.  I will probably buy it again, and would recommend it to others.
     Finally, if you have a mind to get the record for making the world's biggest block of cheddar cheese, better get milking.  The current holder is a 36,850 pound (25,790 kilo) monster made by cheese makers in Oregon, U.S.A. in 1989.
     Also, the story I mentioned a couple of weeks ago was accepted for the "A Thousand Tiny Knives" charity anthology from KnightWatch Press.  I'll provide more details when I get them.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Unusual Flavors of Usual Snack Foods

     As I was wandering the snack food aisle of the local gas station/minimart the other day, I noticed some flavors of familiar brands that I'd never seen before.  Not surprisingly, I couldn't resist picking some up, and giving them a go.  The ones I settled on were Sweetos (from Cheetos, obviously), Sweet & Salty Chocolate Peanut Butter Bugles, and two kinds of Combos--Sweet & Salty Vanilla Frosting Pretzel, and Sweet & Salty Caramel Creme Pretzel.
     Now I'll jump to some brief backgrounds of these brands.  Cheetos are a puffed corn snack dusted with cheese made by Frito-Lay out of Texas, a division of PepsiCo since 1965.  Frito-Lay is actually the world's largest snack food company in the U.S. and the world, accounting for 40% and 35% of total sales, respectively.  Some of their most popular brands are Fritos, Lays and Ruffles potato chips, and Doritos.  Made since 1968, Cheetos are sometimes given different flavors in other countries, such as Steak and Strawberry Cheetos in Japan, and American Cream Cheetos in China.  Their mascot is Chester Cheetah, a sunglass-wearing cool defender of the downtrodden.  On a more comic note (to me anyway) Cheetos thought to resemble Michael Jackson and Jesus (named "Cheesus") have been sold on Ebay in the past decade.
     Bugles are a General Mills product.  This Minnesota based company owns many brands, such as Yoplait yogurt, Haagen-Dazs ice cream, Old El Paso Mexican food products, and many breakfast cereals, among others.  Bugles were invented in 1966, along with sister snacks Daisies, Whistles, Buttons, Bows, and Pizza Spins, each designed to have a shape like their name.  Only Bugles lived past infancy, so to speak.  Other unusual Bugles flavors are Sweet & Salty Caramel, Ketchup, and Coriander.
     Combos are the youngest of these snacks, being developed in the mid 1970's by Eagle Snacks, the snack food division of Anheuser-Busch.  Since 1996 they have been owned by Mars, International, out of Virginia, which mainly markets sweet candies and chocolate.  Combos are hard hollow pretzels filled with cheese.  Combos are heavily involved with NASCAR, as they sponsor driver Kyle Busch, and are the official cheese-filled snack of NASCAR.  (I don't know what is the official cheese coated snack of NASCAR, or official potato-based snack, pickle-based snack, sugar-based snack, etc.)
     Growing up, I had all of these brands, and developed my own opinion of them.  Cheetos are decent cheese snacks, but I prefer the softer, puffier Utz, Herr's, and Wise brand version (called cheese curls/doodles).  All of these are messy to eat, as the orange cheese dust coats your fingers after only a couple of them.  Bugles were okay, but not one of my favorites  Their cone-shaped form is undeniably fun, though--I'll bet few kids who had them could successfully fight the impulse to put them on the ends of their fingers and pretend they had witch's nails, or monster talons.  Combos were strange.  The first time I had one I really liked it.  But I quickly learned that a little goes a long way.  Invariably I got sick of them after I had only a few.  Finishing even a small bag was typically a chore.  This is probably partially due to my feelings about pretzels.  As a native of the Philadelphia area, I'm inclined to prefer the larger (about hand-sized, or bigger), soft, mustard-coated version of a pretzel to the smaller, hard pretzels.  Combos are the smaller, harder pretzel type.
     Anyway, here's my take on these four new flavors, worst to best.  As usual, I'll use the U.S. scholastic system of grading--"A" for excellent, "B" for good, "C" for average, "D" for unsatisfactory but barely passing, "F" for failure, with pluses (+) and minuses (-) as necessary.

1) Combos Sweet & Salty Caramel Creme Pretzel:  D.  Look like regular Combos, only the filling is whitish instead of yellow.  Much more salty than sweet.  Caramel flavor isn't very good.  This marriage of two differing flavors doesn't work.

2) Combos Sweet & Salty Vanilla Frosting Pretzel:  D+.  Appear like regular Combos, only with a brown filling.  Similar to the Caramel Creme, this was pretty nasty.  Again, more salty than sweet.  Slightly better than Caramel Creme, but still bad.

3) Sweetos (Cheetos) Cinnamon Sugar Puffs:  B+.  These are rings, about an inch and a half in diameter.  Not cheesy or savory, just sweet.  Reminded me strongly of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, and that's a good thing.

4) Sweet & Salty Chocolate Peanut Butter Bugles:  A.  These looked like regular Bugles except they're brown instead of yellow.  Very chocolate-y and creamy.  Really enjoyed these.

     To sum up, then, I liked two and disliked two.  Unlike with the regular Combos, I disliked these new kinds from the first one, and didn't finish more than a few of them.  For the Sweetos and Bugles I finished the bags happily.  But, I still do give credit to Combos for trying something new, even if these innovations didn't work this time.  I will certainly try other exotic flavors of Combos (and other snack foods) if/when I get the chance.  If you're interested in trying out the Sweetos, though, be forewarned--they're listed as being available only for a limited time.  (Although that would presumably change if they sell well, I guess.)

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Alligator

     Since our father was a geography professor, my family quickly got used to long vacations every summer.  Because of these (and my later travel for work), I think I've been in every one of the lower 48 States save for maybe North Dakota.  Anyway, on one of our Florida trips we took a bus tour in the Everglades.  At the midway point we stopped and were given a choice:  To get back on the bus and go back to the visitor' center after a break, or walk around the Everglades on our own, and make our own way back to the center.  My brother and I quickly ran out and decided we would walk around on our own, and headed for the nearest dirt path.  We'd only gone a short distance when we saw something.  A big something.  A large alligator was right beside the path, its head resting on the edge of the path.  As if daring us to try to get past it.  Not surprisingly, that changed our decision, and we got back on the bus.
     Many years later, I was working down in Georgia, near Savannah, from late November into early March.  Which was bizarre--they don't have winter down there.  The temperatures were in high 50's to the 70's (Fahrenheit), and some days it even got into the 80's, in February.  Even with these (to me) freakishly hot temps many of the animals still found these too cold.  The giant spiders, snakes, and other reptiles had gone dormant, out of sight.  Which was good, since some of the crew needed to canoe over to some islands to dig.  Then, finally, near the end of the project, we saw it.  A large adult alligator, on the road.  It was big enough to take up an entire lane by itself--at least 7-8 feet long.  Luckily we were in our vehicles at the time.
     Although they're smaller than their crocodile relatives, American alligators are still pretty big, and formidable.  Adult females average about 8 feet in length, and males 11.  The largest ones can reach 14-15 feet long (the record one being 19 feet), and weigh 1000 pounds.  The other species, the Chinese alligator, is much smaller (up to 7 feet long), and alas, critically endangered, as only an estimated several dozen wild individuals exist.  The American variant lives in the Southern U.S. States--Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and North and South Carolina.  The U.S. is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles live side by side.  The two can be distinguished from each other by the alligator's shorter and wider head, smaller size, and the crocodile's protruding 4th tooth on its lower jaw when it's mouth is closed.  Also, despite their size, and weapons, they don't attack people very often.  They'll usually avoid humans unless they feel threatened, or if they're especially hungry.  Their jaws have an odd quirk, too.  Most of the muscles in it are designed to give the alligator an incredibly strong bite.  However, their power to open their jaws is relatively weak--an adult person can keep them closed with their bare hands.
    Alligators are one of the rare success stories from an ecological standpoint.  Once they were seriously endangered, enough so that they were protected from hunting by the federal government in 1967.  Happily, this worked--their population has boomed since then.
     This creature has a strange issue with its eggs as well.  The gender ratio is not pre-determined, as in most animals, but by temperature.  If the temperature in the nest stays at 86 degrees (F) or lower, all the eggs will become females.  If it's 93 and above, they will all turn into males.  In between will result in a mix.  This usually works out to a 5:1 sex ratio in favor of females.  80% or more of the babies will be eaten, either by other predators or other alligators.  The mother gator is very unusual among reptiles in that she cares for her children--assuming they stick around her, she will viciously protect them for the first year of their lives.
     I first got a chance to eat alligator in Louisiana in 1994.  I think it was battered and fried, and I don't recall it making much of an impression.  Years later I had a much better test, at a Portuguese tapas-style restaurant in NJ.  The gator there was roasted, I think, so I got to taste the meat itself in a more pure manner.  It was good.  I would certainly try it again, and recommend it.  Most folks say it has the cliche "tastes like chicken" flavor, but I thought it was much more reminiscent of fish. It's a good choice health-wise.  It's high in protein, and has decent amounts of potassium, phosphorous, B-12, and niacin, while having a relatively low fat content.
     Finally, in the nature-run-amok subgenre, the 1980 Lewis Teague-directed film, "Alligator" was quite effective.  It stars Robert Forster, Robin Riker, and "Frank Pentangeli" himself, Michael V. Gazzo.  It's both tensely frightening, and intentionally funny.  And despite the movie's age, the special effects hold up pretty well.